Think of Afghanistan and the first things to run through your mind would probably be war, Taliban, maybe Osama bin Laden. On a good day for the country’s Ministry for Information and Culture, you might think of camels.
All things considered, any of these would not be an unreasonable take on the troubled and complicated nation.
But now, you can add the sport of cricket to your list. According to the Afghanistan Cricket Board, cricket is the fastest growing sport in the country with more than 70,000 male participants — teams from Afghanistan’s most unstable areas even participate in national tournaments.
And in a country where the Taliban once banned girls from attending school, today in Kabul more than 100 women play. This is potentially bigger than the baby step it might at first seem. A national women’s team will compete at the 2011 Asian Elite Cup, a situation unthinkable under the Taliban.
“Cricket in Afghanistan is much more than a game,” said Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal, ACB president. “It has become a source of pride for ordinary Afghans and an example of their resolve and determination. It is a tool that can contribute positively to peace and stability in our country.”
Cricket’s rise in Afghanistan has been rapid. It was played by the British during the 1800s but never flourished in the region as it did in India and what is now Pakistan. It was not until the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, when Afghan refugees flooded across the border into cricket-crazy Pakistan, that the sport was learned and loved.
Eventually returning home, the former refugees brought cricket with them. The sport has grown since the Taliban’s overthrow, and its fledgling national team has climbed world rankings.”In 2001, Afghanistan was the worst team in the world, and so trying to get to the World Cup eight years later was pretty remarkable,” said Tim Albone, director of “Out of the Ashes,” a film that documents the Afghan cricket team’s journey across the world, from refugee camps in Pakistan to World Cup playoff matches in the United Kingdom.
“They had appalling conditions. They were as far away from the World Cup as you could get when we started following them [with a camera].”
Sam Mendes, the Oscar-winning director of “American Beauty” and “Revolutionary Road,” boosted the film by coming on board the project as executive producer.
“These guys had nothing,” Albone said. “When they went to their first tournament, they were struggling to find cricket balls. These are the first generation [of] Afghans who ever played. Now they are doing adverts for mobile phone companies, and national tournaments are being shown on television.
“I was amazed that no matter what was going on in their country, the team was focused on cricket. That being said, if there is a war in your country, of course it is more and more difficult to play cricket. But the game had the ability to take people’s minds off their problems.”